By day, Fajardo’s famous “Bio Bay” looks like a regular Puerto Rican coastline. By night, however, the bay becomes an eerie lagoon that literally shines a fluorescent hue with every movement or splash. Due to the presence of microscopic plankton that thrive in the shallow waters, every stroke of a kayak paddle creates a trailing ribbon of light. Officially known as “bioluminescence,” there are only a handful of places worldwide where the phenomenon is consistently found. One of those is here at Laguna Grande just off the shores of Fajardo, where kayak tours literally allow visitors the chance to set the water aglow. For as eerie and almost unnatural as that sounds, watching the water glow on your fingertips isn’t the spookiest part. Rather, that would be kayaking through dense mangroves under a total canopy of darkness, where every creak, groan, and jungle sound reminds you’re not indoors.
By itself, kayaking at night beneath the stars is an adventurous and romantic experience, where the only sound is that of your paddles slowly breaking the surface of the water. Crane your neck skywards to look at the stars and navigate only by the moon, as the only sight is the faint bit of lining shining down from the dark sky above. Here off the island of Vieques, however, at Bioluminescent Bay, the adventure is ratcheted up a notch by water that glows when you touch it. Thanks to microorganisms that are best known simply as “dinos,” when you swirl your paddle or fingers in the water of this famous Puerto Rican bay, a flash of neon blue and green will burst right next to your kayak. It’s an experience that runs counter to all your senses, since touching doesn’t usually mean seeing, and a sight that continuously manages to surprise with you with every stroke that you take.
Established in 1949, The San Juan National Historic Site is home to some of the city’s most famous attractions. Visitors can climb to Castillo San Felibe del Morro, overlooking the San Juan Bay, for an up close look at military efforts more than 250 years ago. Travelers can learn about historic battles that took place against the English and Dutch while visiting the restored lighthouse, chapel and vintage cannons.
History buffs will also love Castillo San Cristobal, near the gate of Old San Juan. While El Morro protected Puerto Rico from seaside attacks, Castillo San Cristobal was designed to stop intruders approaching by land. With grounds stretching some 27 acres, this is Puerto Rico’s largest fortification site, as well as the biggest built by the Spanish after discovering the New World.
Quite literally meaning walkway of the princess, Paseo de la Princesa does indeed have enough romance and beauty fit for royalty. A perfect spot to enjoy the Old World charms of San Juan – strolling through this romantic 19th century avenue is perhaps one of San Juan’s most romantic escapes – and yet it’s located just outside the city walls. Lined with antique street lamps, shade trees, and fruit cart vendors – walking the Paseo de la Princesa embues a leisurely sense of ancient romance and serene beauty. With the impressive Old San Juan fortifications towering above you and the glistening San Juan Bay on your left, the Paseo de la Princesa stands a good chance of being your favorite simple escape while in San Juan.
Just north of the Old San Juan district, within the San Juan National Historic Site, lies Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th-century citadel, or fortress.
It is a World Heritage-listed site on the northwestern tip of the islet of San Juan – a perfect spot to keep watch over the Atlantic Ocean and protect Old San Juan and the Bay of San Juan from incoming enemies. Its more recent history includes the American military, which occupied the site from 1898 to 1961.
The citadel, surrounded like it is by an expansive green lawn and the dramatic rocky coast, sits on quite a beautiful spot; the imposing fortress walls create an interesting contrast to the sparkling blue sea. When the wind blows, the lawn that connects the citadel to the town is a popular kite-flying spot.
Built in 1521, The San Juan Cathedral (aka La Santa Catedral San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico) is one of the highlights of any trip into Old San Juan. The second oldest cathedral in the Americas, this historic landmark lies right in the heart of Old San Juan and boasts an impressive array of religious and historical artifacts including the tomb of notorious Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon and the mummy of St. Pio. An operational cathedral, you can attend mass here Saturdays at 7 pm, Sunday at 9 and 11 am, and weekdays 7:25 am and 12:15 pm. And experience a traditional catholic mass, or, when service isn’t being conducted, you can wander the nave free of charge, gaze at the huge stained glass windows, or marvel at the construction of the oldest church on U.S. soil.
Standing guard at Old San Juan’s Eastern Gate is the Castillo de San Crisotbal. Built to protect San Juan against land attacks, the ancient Spanish fort is now part of the San Juan National Historic Site and a great opportunity to see the largest Spanish fortification built in the New World and see some spectacular views of the San Juan Bay and El Morro. The massive structure, which was built in the 18th century to compliment the El Morro fortification which was designed to guard the bay, rises 150 feet above sea level and occupies most of the northeast edge of Old San Juan. Proven to be an effective fortification which helped repel a 1797 land invasion by Sir Ralph Abercrombie, the Castillo de San Cristobal is one of the premier attractions of Old San Juan.
Preserving the identity of the indigenous cultures of the Americas and, in particular, those that populated the island of Puerto Rico before the Spanish invasion, the Museo de las Americas is a small but powerful museum that not only serves to enlighten, but also to entertain. While wandering the halls here, you’ll find that some exhibits tell the history of the Native Americans, while others display folk art from contemporary artists of the island. Most of these exhibits are available for sale, while other pieces of art serve only for appraisal and admiration. See what originally made Puerto Rico the desirable island it is today with a trip down history lane with the Museo de las Americas.
El Yunque Rainforest is the only tropical rainforest under the protection of the US Forest Service and also the largest nature reserve in densely-populated Puerto Rico. It is situated in the mist-wreathed Luquillo Mountains where year-round precipitation ensures lush, green landscapes and a healthy diversity of animal life. This includes mongooses, non-venomous snakes, the rare Puerto Rican Parrot and the Coqui frog whose distinctive croak provides El Yunque’s soundtrack.
El Portal Rain Forest Center provides a good introduction to the area. There you can pick up a map and set out on well-defined walking trails which will take you past such sights as the La Coca Falls and the observation points of Yokahú Tower and Mount Britton Lookout Tower.
When you first set foot on Cayo Icacos and take a look around, it looks exactly like a deserted island you’d see in a Hollywood film. White sand rings a forested grove at the center of the tiny island, and the sound of waves and gusting wind is the only break in the silence. Then, when you turn around and notice the boat that brought you there is gone, the reality of being on a deserted island suddenly begins to sink in. Despite being only 15 minutes from the mainland town of Fajardo, Cayo Icacos is an undeveloped island that feels like the middle of nowhere. It isn’t the isolated seclusion, however, that draws visitors to Icacos; rather, it’s the pristine snorkeling and offshore reefs where schools of colorful, tropical fish all flit and sway with the waves. If you don’t want to simply be dropped off on shore and left to fend for yourself (until the boat comes back, of course, a few hours later), there are snorkeling cruises to Cayo Icacos that make the trip more comfortable.
Picturesque Flamenco Beach is ranked number three among the top 10 most exotic beaches in the world, thanks to its white coral sand, crystal clear water and breathtaking arid tree lined hills. But there are more sandy shores to see on Culebra Island than just this spot for sun and surf—the island itself is a true paradise for beach bumming travelers.
Visitors can access smaller island destinations like Culebrita and Luis Pena (after obtaining a permit) by using a public water taxi from the main town. These tiny landmasses off the coast of this picturesque island are ideal for hiking, photography and scuba diving. Since rivers and streams don’t run into the ocean waters here, so the surrounding seas are unusually clear making for perfect underwater wildlife viewing.
San Juan is the home of world famous Bacardí rum. Even if you’ve never given much thought to how this Caribbean staple gets from the cane fields to your mojito, the Casa Bacardí Visitor Center offers a surprisingly interesting experience. See the distillery, bottling plant and a museum which traces the company’s origins in Cuba to its current global domination.
Naturally it would be cruel to lead you all the way through this grown-up version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and not let you sample the wares, so pure rum and cocktails are handed out towards the end.